There are as many approaches to songwriting as there are songwriters, but most people will agree that the verse is one of the most fundamental building blocks of a song.
The chorus may be the emotional high point of a song, the section that is most likely to replay in listeners’ heads over and over again long after the song has ended, but verses lay the foundation for the chorus to be meaningful.
The verses, along with the pre-chorus, delay the arrival of the chorus, making it all the more satisfying when the chorus finally arrives.
Moreover, verses advance the story of a song, building meaning with each successive verse and adding extra depth to the chorus sections in the process. With all of these responsibilities and more, the verse can be seen as the “workhorse” of a song.
In this article, we will share some songwriting tips and inspiration to help you strengthen your verse sections. We will attend to lyrics, songwriting techniques, and technical details like chord progressions to help you write a song you can be proud of and something your listener will want to hear again and again.
What Is The Purpose Of A Verse?
Form in songwriting is a push-pull between that which is dynamic and that which remains static. Too much “newness” leaves a listener unable to grab hold of something and stay grounded. Too much of the same material comes across as repetitive and dull.
The verse offers musicians the ability to walk the line between old material and new material, because each successive verse changes, but only partially.
The most common approach is to retain the melodies and chords from verse to verse, but change the lyrics from the first verse to the second verse, and so on. The verse is thus an essential device for advancing any sort of plot or developing an idea across successive iterations.
The choruses that take place in between verses, as more static entities that remain largely or entirely unchanged, anchor the song to its main idea.
It makes for an interesting thought experiment to consider what a verse becomes when not only the lyrics but also the music supporting the lyrics, changes from verse to verse. I would suggest that the answer to that question might be a bridge.
The bridge section typically only takes place once in a song, if at all, and there is a reason for that. The bridge is meant to depart noticeably from the rest of the song; it is meant to stand out as being totally new. Too much of this can, as previously mentioned, can make it difficult for a listener to follow the thread of a song.
Thus, retaining most of the musical elements of the verse while changing lyrics from verse to verse helps to settle the listener into a common musical motif while also helping to focus their attention on the dynamic elements of the story.
Writing Strong Verses
There is really no right or wrong way to develop a verse. Regardless of the steps that you follow or the tips you keep in the back of your mind as you work, you could still arrive at the same musical idea in the end.
These next two sections will trace a path from a simple idea to two fully-formed verses.
Each step in the process is neither right nor wrong but may help to kickstart your own creative process.
Turning An Idea Into A Story
Regardless of whether your subject is an epic tale spanning multiple continents and dozens of characters, or has the dynamic range of a bowl of fruit, a song is an art form that only moves if there is some sort of push-pull. This balance can be achieved with contrast and direction.
Conflict drives storylines, and there are countless conflicts we can choose from when framing our songs. Subject versus subject is the go-to for a breakup song, of course, but in the event of an “it’s not you, it’s me” scenario, that would fall into the subject versus self category.
In Romeo and Juliet, the two subjects are united in a struggle against their social context, which makes that a subject versus society conflict. If none of these three types of conflict fit the subject of your song, there are three other common conflicts: subject versus nature (like Tom Hanks’s character in Castaway), subject versus technology (like Will Smith’s character in iRobot), and subject versus the supernatural (who ya gonna call for this one? Ghostbusters).
Taking Your Listener Somewhere
Whether you are exploring the conflict you can build around the subject of your song or you’re taking a different approach, the purpose of the verse is to take the listener somewhere different with each successive iteration.
Even the simplest pop songs use a song verse to advance in some direction, so the most important step of building your idea into the material of a verse is to find the point B to your point A, and determine what the through-line is between them.
Once you have established a storyline, your next step will be to break the story into episodes. These episodes can represent different stages of the story or they can cover different aspects of the subject of the song.
In any event, these are the pillars that support the chorus, which cuts through the rest of your material as the main focal point of the song. These episodes should not overlap too much with the chorus, but they will still need to correspond somewhat.
Lyrically, the lines of the first verse will introduce the listener to the subject of the song. The first verse is often how a song begins, so the ideas expressed here will need to attract the listener’s attention and greatly influence their initial impression of your song.
The chorus might be the most memorable lyrics of a song, but the lines of the first verse are often the second-most memorable.
The second verse will often take place after the first iteration of the chorus, so the listener at this point has already heard the main point of the song. The second verse, then, has to communicate ideas that the listener does not yet know.
The chords are mostly or entirely unchanged and the melodies are mostly the same, so something in the lyrics has to communicate an as yet untold part of the story, or else the song might as well be over.
How Many Verses?
Many songs only have two verses, as each successive verse after the second has to work even harder to justify its existence. By the time the listener has heard two pieces of a story and two choruses communicating the main idea of the song, they start to feel like they’ve gotten the point.
This is often where a bridge comes in to really shake things up, sort of like a twist in the story or a surprise. A return to a chorus afterward is then welcomed as a restoration of order as opposed to a redundant iteration of the main idea the listener has heard too many times already.
There is no magic formula for choosing the right number of verses, pre-choruses, choruses, nor whether or not to add a bridge, intro, and outro, regardless of how homogenous much of the output of the music industry has become.
Rather, it is a balancing act between dynamic, new material and recognizable old material. Musicians must hit a sweet spot and give their audiences something familiar to hold on to but also a delightful surprise to keep them at the edge of their seat.
Telling A Story Musically
The process of setting text to verse, verse to melody, and melody to accompaniment could involve a wide variety of moving parts, whether it means a singer-songwriter plunking out notes on a piano or guitar, or a beatmaker arranging a series of loops to fit a rapper’s needs.
Here you can try a chord change, a drum fill, or a new counter-melody, as something in the music generally needs to change to signal a new section. Good songwriters find a way to match the musical accompaniment of the verses to the text of the verses.
Whether you prefer to write in rhyming couplets, incorporate alliteration, or sneak internal rhyme into your lines, the sound of words is at least as important to writing verses as the meaning they convey.
A phrase will not ring out in a song verse without careful attention to the sound of the words and their rhythms, regardless of how beautiful the melody is.
The process of landing on the right words may be instantaneous or it might take many tries to get right. Like any other step in the songwriting process, putting a phrase or two out into the world to elicit feedback will often be just as helpful as searching for generalized songwriting tips.
The Sound Of The Music
The final step we will consider for now is that of matching the music to the motif of the song as a whole, and to that of the verse in particular. The danger when considering the verses and chorus separately is you can end up with a song that sounds like pieces of two different songs stapled together after the fact.
While the chorus and verses are two distinct sections of music, the chorus should grow out of the verses and vice versa. Often all it takes is considering the transitions between sections. If the transition sounds awkward, it could be that the sections do not match well enough and need some work.
One tried and true approach to developing a musical push-pull between the verse and the chorus is to set the two sections in different but closely related keys.
For example, a chorus in C Major about triumphing against the odds could be supported by verses telling the story of the struggle to triumph written in A minor, the relative minor of C Major.
This is just one example of leveraging keys to help tell the story: see our article on the circle of fifths for more on this.
The contour of the melody to which the lyrics are set is another option for building the story into the music. Songs from the Renaissance are full of text-painting figures, also known as madrigalisms, that illustrate the text through the melodic contour.
Some of these songs come across as a bit on-the-nose, with ascending melodies for describing a hill climb and bird calls written into songs about birds. But one need not take the practice to the extreme in order to think about how the rhythms and contours of a melody reflect the feel of the lyrics.
No two songwriters arrive at their musical end in the exact same way, and for that, we should all be thankful. We will never run out of music to write and listen to thanks precisely to the fact that music is such a diverse art form.
Moreover, music is subjective, so a four-line verse might sound too short to you in a particular context while it will hit the spot just right for another musician. As long as someone wants to listen to it, it is right.
As we continue to push against our own creative boundaries and listen to the output of other musicians doing the same thing, the most important thing to remember is simply to keep making music.
The verse, as the part of the song driving forward progress, should be a constant reminder to us in our musical lives to keep progressing so that the next point of arrival really means something.
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